Sunny Jain's 'Wild Wild East' Is A Western-Inspired Ode To An Immigrant Father

Mar 2, 2020
Originally published on March 2, 2020 7:53 pm

Inspiration can strike anywhere. For Sunny Jain, the inspiration for his new album Wild Wild East came while he was on stage at a concert at the Global Village in Dubai, which he describes as "kind of like the Epcot center of the Mideast."

Like the famous Disney World destination, the Global Village has representations of various nations and cultures. Most countries were represented by architecture — Turkey by Byzantine and Ottoman art, France by the Eiffel Tower — but the United States was represented by a person: a massive statue of a white male cowboy, gun in holster.

"I just sat there like, holy cow, [thinking about] this narrative of the cowboy and how it just keeps persisting as this American identity," Jain remembers. At that moment, he decided that rather than fight the American cowboy story, he would expand it.

On Wild Wild East, Jain draws heavily from spaghetti westerns, but also from hip-hop and the Bollywood songs his immigrant parents brought with them from India, combining all of those familiar parts into something completely new. The album is also a celebration of his father, who died in November while Jain was putting the finishing touches on the album.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Sunny Jain about the story behind the album, reworking techniques from the film composer Ennio Morricone and writing music inspired by his father as his father's health was declining. Listen in the player above, and read on for a transcript of their conversation.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ari Shapiro: This album opens with a kind of overture that sounds to me like the theme song to a Bollywood cowboy movie. This track is called "Immigrant Warrior." What did you have in mind here?

Sunny Jain: I was thinking about the journey that my parents took: specifically my father going through one of the biggest mass migrations in world history in 1947 with the Partition and independence of India and Pakistan; moving to eastern Punjab and then eventually moving to America and this courage and confidence that he's kind of traversed the world with. Then the song takes a dip where he enters America. It's a mystery and he's trying to figure out where's his footing here, his foundation.

You're primarily a drummer, and on this album you use your instrument to imitate the sound of galloping hooves or a train thundering down a track. Can you tell us about how you actually do that with your instruments?

I think about Ennio Morricone and his utilization of the snare drum. He wrote all the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone — everyone knows the Clint Eastwood movies like Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — and had a way of just creating this cinematic landscape with the drums. So I'm employing it with a little bit of snare drum, but I'm really utilizing this Punjabi drum called the dhol.

Describe what the dhol looks like for us.

The dhol is a big, barrel-shaped instrument. It's slung over the shoulder, and there's a high side — a treble side — and a bass side. It's kind of synonymous with Punjabi culture in the sense of it's festive, it's joyous, it's connected to Bhangra music and Bhangra dance, and folk music. So I'm also employing that in this sense of galloping. "Wild Wild East" is a good [example].

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What are you trying to create here with the dhol?

I'm trying to create some forward momentum, traveling through desert; I'm thinking about the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. I'm trying to create a sense of urgency, I'm trying to replace the kind of motifs that Ennio used — that to me sound almost Native American or like Native Indigenous calls — and replacing them with Punjabi, with Indian calls, with the Punjabi rhythms played by the saxophone, the Punjabi dhol.

One of my favorite songs on the album is a song whose title translates in English to "My Heart Is A Vagabond." I can imagine a cowgirl singing this while the sun sets over the plains, but this is actually an old Hindi song, is that right?

It is. One of the things we talked about — Grey McMurray on guitar here and this is Ganavya on vocals — was bringing out that kind of bluesy and country infection that you hear in Westerns through the guitars. But you certainly hear the bending in Ganavya's voice, with inflections of Carnatic music.

Am I right that your father used to sing this song to your mother?

Yeah. There's two Bollywood tracks on here: "Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal" and "Hai Apna Dil to Aawara." My dad, he was an amateur musician — in the sense that he was an enthusiast, and loved singing and playing Bollywood tracks on his reel-to-reel — and he had a harmonium and a bulbul tarang, which is like an Indian banjo. He would take it out, and he had a repertoire of four or five songs. Two of those songs were these two songs on the album.

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I understand your father died late last year while you were finishing this album. Is that right?

He did. He passed Nov. 14. He had a decline in health in April, and that was around the time when I was rehearsing all the music. We went into the studio in May, and that was a four, five month process of his eventual decline. I was playing him the music in the hospital and rehab, and it was nice to be able to play the stuff for him. There's a little short snippet of "Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal" on his actual bulbul tarang that he brought from India that migrated here to American.

I know this whole project is a sort of tribute to him, about the journey that he made so that you could be born in the United States, grow up in Rochester, N.Y. What would he think of this album now that it's completed in the world?

I think he'd be pretty thrilled by it. It was interesting, after we recorded and with everything that was happening with my father, there [were] two or three weeks that I couldn't even listen to this music; it was just too painful, it was reminding me of what was happening, and I knew eventually what was to come. And it took me a while to come back to it, but I'm thrilled that we were able to make this album, and that he was able to hear some of it.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Inspiration can strike just about anywhere. For percussionist Sunny Jain, it hit him in Dubai, playing a concert in a theme park called the Global Village.

SUNNY JAIN: I remember standing onstage and kind of looking out at this circular, you know, arena of these countries. And they're all - it's kind of like the Epcot Center - the Mid-East.

SHAPIRO: Most of the regions and countries were represented by architecture.

JAIN: You know, Turkey's represented by the Byzantine and Arabic art and Ottoman art. And then France is represented by the Eiffel Tower.

SHAPIRO: But one region was represented by a human.

JAIN: That was the Americas, which was represented by a white male cowboy with a gun in the holster.

SHAPIRO: Legs splayed, a giant human archway - you enter by walking through his legs.

JAIN: And I just sat there like, holy cow - like, this narrative of the cowboy and how it just keeps persisting, you know, as this American identity.

SHAPIRO: And that's when you decided, rather than fight it, you would just expand it.

JAIN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: On his new album "Wild Wild East," Sunny Jain plays with the concept of cowboys and Indians. He fuses old country-western tropes with instruments and melodies from India. You can clearly hear it on this first track, "Immigrant Warrior."

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNY JAIN'S "IMMIGRANT WARRIOR")

JAIN: I was thinking about, you know, the journey that my parents took, specifically my father going through, like, one of the biggest mass migrations in world history in 1947 with the Partition and independence of India and Pakistan, moving to eastern Punjab and then eventually moving to America - and this courage and confidence that, you know, he's kind of traversed the world with. You know, and then the song kind of takes a dip where he enters America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNY JAIN'S "IMMIGRANT WARRIOR")

JAIN: It's a mystery, and he's trying to figure out where's his footing here and his foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNY JAIN'S "IMMIGRANT WARRIOR")

SHAPIRO: You're primarily a drummer. And on this album, you use your instrument to imitate the sounds of galloping hooves or a train thundering down a track. Can you tell us about how you actually do that with your instrument?

JAIN: Yeah. I mean, I think about Ennio Morricone and his utilization of the snare drum.

SHAPIRO: The composer who wrote for a lot of old Western films, right?

JAIN: Yes, exactly. Yeah. He wrote all the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone where - you know, everyone knows the Clint Eastwood movies of, like, "Fistful Of Dollars" and "The Good And Bad And The Ugly" (ph). And Ennio had a way of just kind of creating this cinematic landscape with the drum.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's listen to a little bit of his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAIN: So I'm employing it with a little bit of snare drum, but I'm really utilizing this Punjabi drum called the dhol.

SHAPIRO: Describe what the dhol looks like for us.

JAIN: The dhol is a big, barrel-shaped instrument slung over the shoulder. And there's a high side, a treble side and a bass side. It's kind of synonymous with Punjabi culture in the sense of - it's festive. It's joyous. It's connected to bhangra music and bhangra dance and folk music. And so I'm also employing that in the sense of galloping.

SHAPIRO: Give us the specific track where we can really hear that.

JAIN: "Wild Wild East" actually is a good one to...

SHAPIRO: Second track on the album.

JAIN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNY JAIN'S "WILD WILD EAST")

SHAPIRO: So what are you trying to create here with the dhol?

JAIN: I'm trying to create some forward momentum traveling through desert - I'm thinking about the Thar Desert of Rajasthan - trying to create a sense of urgency. I'm trying to replace the kind of motifs that Ennio used that, to me, sound like almost like Native American or native indigenous calls and replacing them with Punjabi, with Indian calls, with these Punjabi rhythms played by the saxophone, the Punjabi dhol.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD WILD EAST")

GANAVYA: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: One of my favorite tracks on the album is a song that translates in English to, my heart is a vagabond. What's the Hindi name of this song?

JAIN: "Hai Apna Dil."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAI APNA DIL TO AAWARA")

GANAVYA: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Now, I can imagine a cowgirl singing this while the sun sets over the plains, but this is actually an old Hindi song. Is that right?

JAIN: It is, yeah. I mean, one of the things we talked about - Gray McMurray on guitar here, and this is Ganavya on vocals - was bringing out that kind of bluesy and country inflection that you hear in Westerns through the guitars. But you certainly hear the bending in Ganavya's voice with inflections of Carnatic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAI APNA DIL TO AAWARA")

GANAVYA: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Am I right that your father used to sing this song to your mother?

JAIN: Yeah. There's two Bollywood tracks on here - "Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal" and "Hai Apna Dil To Aawara." My dad would - you know, he was an amateur musician in the sense that he was an enthusiast and loved singing and playing Bollywood tracks on his reel-to-reel. And he had a harmonium and a bulbul tarang, which is like an Indian banjo. And he would take it out, and he had, like, a repertoire of four or five songs. And two of those songs were these two songs on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAI APNA DIL TO AAWARA")

GANAVYA: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: Now, I understand your father died late last year while you were finishing this album. Is that right?

JAIN: He did. He passed November 14. He had a decline in health in April. And that was around the time when I was rehearsing all the music. We went into the studio in May. That was a four- or five-month process of his eventual decline.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry.

JAIN: Thank you. You know, I was playing him the music in the hospital and rehab, and it was nice to be able to play this stuff for him. There's a little short snippet of "Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal" on his actual bulbul tarang that he brought from India that migrated here to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNY JAIN'S "AYE MERE DIL KAHIN AUR CHAL")

SHAPIRO: I know this whole project is a sort of tribute to him about the journey that he made so that you could be born in the United States...

JAIN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Grow up in Rochester, N.Y.

JAIN: Right.

SHAPIRO: What do you think he would think of this album now that it's complete and in the world?

JAIN: I think he'd be pretty thrilled by it. You know, it was interesting. After we recorded and everything that was happening with my father, there was two or three weeks that I couldn't even listen to this music. It was just too painful. It was reminding me what was happening, and I knew eventually what was to come. And it took me a while to come back to it. But I'm thrilled that we were able to make this album and, you know, he was able to hear some of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAITRI BHAVANU")

GANAVYA: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: Sunny Jain's new album is "Wild Wild East."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

JAIN: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAITRI BHAVANU")

GANAVYA: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.